There's a new trend in social networks and applications that seems to slightly miss the point of social networking overall. I'm talking about social networks based on location - not the likes of Foursquare, but applications whose communities are built on those people near you. This concept of a community based on geographical similarities and nothing else seems to misunderstand the motivators behind building up a community or networking with people because it relies on something circumstantial. Just because I'm near to someone, I don't necessarily want to interact with them online or through mobile, yet there are many new applications emerging in this space, so is there some value in it?
Tinychat launches geo video chat
The group chat site 'Tinychat' recently launched a feature that Chatroulette themselves experimented, then seemingly abandoned. As well as being able to build group video chatrooms, you can now videochat with someone based on their locality. When registering on the site, you can now see a map that brings up icons to show you who else is chatting nearby. Creepy much?
Now the people behind the site have clearly put some thought into privacy here, as the location revealed is only within a 10 mile radius, so you're hardly going to be able to tell if someone is videochatting on your street. Still I find this concept a little uncomfortable and though you have to commend the founders on having a real passion for using the web to connect people in real life, I'm not sure it's something that people have a real interest in. Though many 'real life' events have integrated the offline and online well, such as Tweetups for example, this is more a result of connecting with people and building connections organically. You'll follow people in your area through seeing who else your community is following, mutual connections, or meeting them in real life first before connecting online. Do you really want to build a community based solely on where you are? This seems at odds with the ability of social media to connect people regardless of where you are.
Yobongo is perhaps an even more extreme example of geo social networking, combining 2 social media trends of the moment : location services and group texting. Yobongo's iPhone app allows you to text with strangers that are in your vicinity. The app was started by Kaleb Elston and David Kasper, both ex-Justin.TV. The aim is to connect you with the strangers around you, such as the guy sitting opposite you in the bar, or working next to you in a coffee shop. Check out this interesting video with the founder Kaleb Elston below :
The concept of Yobongo is certainly adventurous - using an app to completely eradicate any social awkwardness or boundaries that exist between people face to face, yet oddly don't exist at all through social media. When you consider it in this way, you do have to give the founders credit here. Even more than Tinychat, they are aiming to help people build connections wherever and with whoever. It is this concept of a connection that doesn't sit well with me though. To assume you want to build a connection with someone just because they're near to you, seems to go against all that social media has achieved with allowing you to build useful connections, organically over time that enhance your experience, provide you with new content, business opportunities etc.. When we're trying to make our online communities more efficient through techniques such as filtering content or organising links shared, do you want to add to this with a community that seems so loose and abstract?
Misunderstanding human motivation
I firmly believe that geo social networks will have the place in the future, but where I see them being perhaps slightly ahead of their time now, is down to pure human behaviour. We are now used to approaching strangers online and building connections in that way. The concept of it seeming odd to connect with someone you've never met or share no other connections with has completely passed. You barely think twice about sending a tweet to a stranger or connecting with them on LinkedIn because you happen to be a fan of their blog or met them at a conference. Doing this in real life though, is another matter altogether. By nature we are private, socially awkward creatures. I'm not sure we're quite ready to strike up a conversation with someone through an app, knowing that they're sitting across from you in a coffee shop. Who makes the first move to walk over, or suggest that you suddenly sit together? It also places far too much emphasis on the concept of location being a uniting factor. The great thing about social media is that you don't have to rely on that anymore. It's trying to do something new, that we're perhaps not ready for or even need.
The community is in the content
While I don't think Tinychat or Yobongo are quite there yet. there are some geolocation apps emerging that are getting absolutely right. These are the services that focus on the content of the community around you, as opposed to the people themselves. Emerging apps such as Color are a great example of this, as well as Foodspotting which is growing massively in social media circles (covered by Niall in his blog post on social networks for foodies) and was a hugely popular app at SXSW earlier this year. The reason why Foodspotting is so popular now and has such big potential is because it's focused on gathering content around you to give you an actual service. You can browse people's food photos from nearby restaurants, accompanied by small reviews to see if the restaurant looks right for you. I love this idea because it retains an element of location-based-services, but makes no real attempt to build long lasting communities off the back of this. It's trawling through the content that others have left behind them, to influence the next visitors. Color operates in much the same way, you can access instant content in the form of photos other people have left, but with no real need to build a long lasting community around the content you discover. This is exactly how physical social networks should be run.
There is clearly a big future in geo social networks that are based around images. Indeed, photo sharing sites are emerging as the new social networks if the incredible rise of Instagram is anything to go by. Photos in this way can be used to build a virtual map between physical businesses and locations, allowing you to access social networking features that can help you get more out of them, or at the very least make informed choices. If this is the way that social networking is going however, I believe it can only survive with a higher level of anonymity. Though there are many extreme futuristic looks at social media that show us the likes of people walking around with their personal information on show for anyone to see, I think this is to place too low a value on connections or community. This might sound odd, as I'm sure many will argue that the community you should be most connected with is the physical one around you. But at the moment this functions completely different to a 'social' community. It grows based on face to face introductions, or starting online first. Attempts to change this will need to include more of an incentive, such as Foodspotting, where you're able to get more out of the connection that simply striking up a conversation.
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